Wednesday, April 26, 2006

this week I have been mostly watching Henry V

That's what it feels like anyway. On Monday night I watched Olivier's 1944 version and last night it was the turn of Branagh's 1989 version. Sunday (23rd April, St George's day and Shakespeare's birthday) would have been a highly appropriate day for watching lots of Shakespeare, but I was otherwise engaged, driving back from Exeter. It's been fun and it counts as work since I've got an essay to write.

Olivier's Henry V is deliberately theatrical. The first few scenes take place on an Elizabethan stage, complete with groundlings, basic scenery and rain. Later scenes expand to take in fleets of model ships sailing to France and landscapes filled with tiny castles and houses. The whole thing has an air of unreality and staginess, which fits with the form of the play. Any piece of action too difficult to stage is narrated by Chorus, reminding the watching audience that they must "Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts" (Act 1, Prologue).

Branagh's version is equally clear about its unreality. Chorus, played by Derek Jacobi, starts on a film set. The first half of the film is almost entirely interior shots, only moving outside with the first battle at Harfleur. The look is cinematically dramatic rather than stagey. At the battle of Agincourt though, the blood and mud and rain look all too real. It's clear that Henry's men are exhausted and outnumbered by the fresher French and their victory is hard won.

There's a difference in tone between the two films. Olivier's version, especially in the theatre scenes, is played for laughs. Branagh's, from the very beginning is more serious and more tense. Olivier's battle scenes are in full daylight with vibrant colours and flashing swords. Branagh's battle scenes are a bloody, muddy mess. Henry begins the battle of Agincourt looking suprising clean, but by the end of it, he's as mired in grime and gore as any of his men.

Both films pack an emotional punch. Olivier's film, made in 1944, was partly a deliberate exercise in morale raising during the war. Henry's rousing speeches are as much for the audience's benefit as for the characters'. It reminds me a little of A Matter of Life and Death and other Powell and Pressburger films of that era. There's a seriousness to it, but it's all a little unreal and disconnected from real blood and suffering. Branagh's version on other hand, almost moved me to tears. At the St Crispin's day speech, I was totally carried along with him. At the end of the battle, the battle worn king and his men carry the bodies to be buried in a gritty and moving scene that would be out of place in Olivier's film.

I could go on and on. I'm glad I watched these films in quick succession. Both are brilliant, in their different ways and true enough to the text to make them useful for someone studying the play. Go and watch some Shakespeare!


Dave Routledge said...

Hi Bekki

AT LAST!!!!!!!!!

It really saddens me that Shakespeare is not as widely read or quoted as he used to be. He is, quite simply, the best writer there has ever been, who wrote the most beautiful, memorable and inspirational lines, in the world's most poetic language (The Holy Bible excepted).

Perhaps we should start a campaign to restore him to his rightful place. I have been trying for years to get Adrian to slip the odd quote or two into one of his sermons, in fact no praecher can be considered truly great until he has done so.

It was interesting to hear Coronation Street's Rita Sullivan make reference to Shakespeare in Wednesday episode (I think corrie is superb drama) (seriously). What was a little bewildering is that she said she could not understand what the play was about, but was nonetheless content to enjoy her ice-cream!!!????

Surely a woman of her generation would not have found the play difficult, also is Shakespeare really THAT hard to understand?

I could go on and on, but I wont. Congratulations for flying the flag and why don't you drop Adrian a line, and, who knows, maybe the Swan of Avon will be heard in Cineworld.

For the record I think I prefer Branagh, on the grounds that it was not produced for propaganda purposes, having said that, Olivier's mastery is a joy.

I wish you well in your studies



God bless

Pig wot flies said...

There may well be lots more Shakespeare on my blog in the next year or two. The next OU course unit I plan to study is all Shakespeare. It doesn't start until February next year, but I want to see if I can get to see some of the RSC's productions during their complete works year.

Dave Routledge said...

just make sure you get to see Richard The One Hundred and Eleventh!

God bless

Nathan said...

Kenneth Brannagh's Agincourt:

Best. Battle scene. Ever.